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Interview
The Books

The Books

date
Monday 21st February, 2011 9:21AM

New York City’s the Books found critical acclaim unexpectedly, and rather quickly, with their debut album from 2000, Thought for Food. Two subsequent (and similarly excellent) albums followed soon after – 2003’s Lemon of Pink and 2005’s Lost and Safe. The band then took a long break, until last year’s The Way Out. Despite only playing in New Zealand last year with Camera Obscura, the Books are returning with their trippy live show, which incorporates videos, intriguing aural performances and their trademark use of collages.

Why music?

Well, why anything? [laughs] The thing I love about music is that there's no practical purpose to it at all. It doesn't feed you, it doesn't give you shelter, but it's sort of universal. We need it even though it serves no purpose. It's an interesting metaphor in that way.

What interested you in found sound and incorporating them into traditional song structures?

Collage feels like a really contemporary way of working. Our culture is so noisy, and it feels like there's so much stuff lying around. People use things and throw them out, so we're surrounded by piles of discarded things. It seems like they should be put to use. Also, collage gets you out of your own head, it gives you a lot of stimulation to make new things. It's inspiring in that way, it's not like I have to pour my own heart out, I can just look out at the world for things that resonate with me and build upon them. It's a way of getting over the fear of the blank canvas.

Is there an idealism in bringing to life the discarded?

I don't know if it's idealism, it feels like a real survival strategy more than anything. You're surrounded by such noise that either it's going to overwhelm you or through working with it you can make it your own. In a way it's reclaiming silence. Maybe that's idealistic, but that's what it feels like when it works well.

How much planning goes into a song before it's composed?

Not so much. I think really it depends on what we find. We sit down and I start playing and see what happens. Those magical things happen once in a while. As long as you're looking out for them and notice things, but they're not the sort of things you can plan. I always love those moments that are really unexpected.

How do you know when a sample will work – is it a thematic thing, or is it more of an aesthetic thing that attracts you to it?

The more qualities a sample has, the easier it is to use. I know quality is an ill-defined word, but you kinda know it when you hear it. It's the kind of thing that cuts straight to the heart for whatever reason – it could be really happy or sad or meaningful or completely stupid, as long as it has these extremes to it and you can pick it up and use it.

Is there a thrill in the chase in trying to find new samples and sounds?

Yeah of course, it's like gambling. The more you look, the more you find. You can go quite a while without finding much, or you'll have those days and the force is with you and you find these incredible things which keep you coming back for more.

Thought for Food – was that a difficult album to put together?

Well we had absolutely no preconception of what we were doing. We were just making music because we loved it at that point. Thought for Food was at the very beginning of my music making. So there was no intention to it whatever. It was 'maybe our friends will hear this some day'. We didn't think it was going to go anywhere. In a sense it was easier because of that. It was really motivated by, completely internal things, rather than expectations. Since then it has become more difficult, we're having this conversation with our fanbase, and we have to please them in a way and also move forward.

Were you surprised by how it was received?

Absolutely. I'm still surprised. It's really weird music so you never know how it's going to be played out. If you get the label 'experimental' it's a death sentence to move from that. But somehow people find resonance in it, there's a heart in it that people can relate to. I guess it works out.

Is that gratifying seeing there are people out there who see pleasure in the same discarded things you guys do?

Oh yeah, definitely. It makes you feel like a citizen of the world. There's a lot of satisfaction there.

Lemon of the Pink was quite a shift, you had [Anne Doerner] in there as well. I guess vocally, and the use of the voice would have posed a challenge – how difficult was it writing for someone who wasn't integrally involved in the music creation?

Originally it was to solve a problem. We found all these texts that were really beautiful, [but the] voices that were originally attached to them were not so interesting. They were bad voices or really bad quality. So the vocals became a way of working with the text and including it in the music without having to use sampled voices. I was sort of the default one to sing because Paul wasn't willing to do it. I had no experience. For better or worse, I'm the singer now.

Has that taken a bit of getting use to live?

We were never intending to play live. We were hoping to make a living out of releasing records which is not really possible anymore. Playing live was the only way we could turn it into a livelihood. We were very reluctant to do that, but luckily our booking agent talked us into it. Since then it's kind of grown on me, it's kind of fun.

Is there as much freedom in a live show as there is when you're composing?

It's a different kind of freedom. It's a very different aesthetic preparing for a live show and making records. People who listen to records tend to listen alone in a very concentrated way. In a live performance, it's much more about being part of a group. It's been interesting trying to retro-fit studio ideas into the live environment and see what works and what doesn’t.

You also use video projection – does that help structure a live performance?

Yeah, the video projection was the key to making the live show work for us. We don't have the charisma to carry that much attention on stage. We just play our own instruments, and so the videos became our frontman. And still is for the most part. A lot of times we were having video ideas the same time as audio ideas. The two are feeding off each other more and more.

Lost and Safe – the interaction between the vocal and the found sound was really intriguing – was that increased vocal performance intended?

Again, it was to solve a problem. When a band shifts a lot of people just reject it because they weren't expecting it, which is understandable. But really, it was following a passion, which was to make beautiful music. And it felt like it needed that presence with a voice, a singing voice to really carry it. The fact that it's my voice is not so important I think. If there was another singer who was there, that'd be really nice. But what I'm looking for is a kind of ego-less voice, the one that represents a universal voice. That's the kind of voice I was really after in Lost and Safe.

I guess you were saying before that Thought for Food was made at the start of your career, and you'd have been developing musically while also having fans expect you to go back to what you started off with…

Yeah, it's interesting. We just re-released all of our records, or in the process of doing that. I went back and re-mastered Thought for Food over the last few months. It was pretty interesting going back and having a listen. There was a lot of stuff I didn't know was in there because my ears had changed so much. It was also interesting to go back and connect with my former self in a way. I remember making all of that stuff, but it's pretty distant memory now. It's pretty interesting it still has resonance with people almost ten years later. It's pretty amazing.

There's a big gap between Lost and Safe and the Way Out – any reason?

Yeah, it was time for a break. We both had kids. And we were interested in other things. It seemed time to get our family secure, so I spent most of that time building a house. I worked on a film for a while, and teaching at a school for a while. When it was time to come back, Paul had a pretty vast sample library he'd been working on in the meantime. We jumped back in pretty quickly.

How do you guys works together, do you do things individually and then come together?

Yeah it's very much an individual thing. I'm pretty much the composer for the band and Paul is the collector. Although there is some overlap in those roles. It's pretty much a solitary thing. During the making of The Way Out, we would meet weekly and talk about ideas and progress and if there were samples that I felt could be useful I'd go and ask Paul to find some. Mostly that worked out well.

I presume you have a similar outlook in terms of what you find interesting in a sample?

I wouldn't say that [laughs]. Our Venn Diagrams overlap. Definitely not in a complete way. There's a sliver of stuff between us that we both find interesting and that's what we focus on.

The differing approaches must be useful then?

Yeah it's constantly shifting. We're human beings, we change all the time.

What's next after the tour?

I'm working on a documentary right now about Haitian voodoo. Totally amazing. I'm working on the soundtrack for that now. And I'm working on new stuff for myself.

Do you approach film soundtracks in the same way as the Books?

In the Books I'm sort of the executive decision maker. But when I'm working on a film, it's a director who really decides. I have to stick to their vision. It's truly nice in a sense to have that back and forth with someone, who really knows what they want but can't quite say. You have to figure it out at the time, and those kind of new relationships are really fun.

Musicians have often said how working on a film can shift their own musical writing

It's just a miracle how music works with a moving image. The way the brain naturally connects things. I'm always finding new things. There's a lot of unexplored territory there. Particularly with this film, the director has given me a lot of licence to experiment and explore and drive things hard. I think it's going to stand up to it. It's going to be a very unique film I think.

Brannavan Gnanalingam

links
thebooksmusic.com
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